Struggling To Provide Safe, Clean Drinking Water In Pennsylvania

Jun 5, 2017

At either end of Lavarna Way, in Pittsburgh, stood well-used orange signs: ROAD CLOSED.

The street was empty, except for an excavator, and a Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority crew dressed in neon yellow suits.

“Let’s take a walk down to the hole,” said the foreman, Mike Gigliotti.

The hole in question was about 6 feet wide and 6 feet deep. The exposed 8-inch water line at the bottom is used to feed water to a nearby house. But the line blew when the house was demolished. The resulting leak ate away at the pavement. Because none of the neighbors called to complain about low water pressure, PWSA didn’t know there was a leak until the pavement started to go wonky. It was a pretty standard fix, said Gigliotti: uncover the line, assess the problem, fix the problem, fill the hole.

“We joke, every day’s different, but it’s the same. We’re not digging here tomorrow to make a repair, we’re digging somewhere else,” he said. “It’s endless. There’s always going to be room for repair.”

It’s true of any complicated system, but it’s particularly true in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto told a packed City Council chambers earlier this spring that the municipal water system faced significant risk.

“[There are] over a half dozen areas where if they are to fail, where if one thing goes wrong, the entire city is without water,” he said.

Not exactly what a roomful of water-drinking residents might like to hear. But Peduto said it’s time to take an honest look at the city’s water system, joking later, “Today’s rip-the-Band-Aid-off day.”

And Pittsburgh isn’t alone. Thirty percent of the state’s water systems aren’t as resilient as they need to be, said Lisa Daniels, director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Safe Drinking Water.

“That could mean they don’t have backup power supply. They may not have adequate finished water storage," said Daniels. "They may not have interconnections that would allow them to purchase water from somebody else if something would go wrong in their system.” 

Strengthening systems so they can withstand breaks, failures and emergencies means finding even more money.

“They just now need to begin to think about how resiliency plays into that, and they have to put it on their priority list,” she said.

There hasn’t been a clear priority list in Pittsburgh for a long time, said Bob Weimar, PWSA’s interim director. Normally, something called a condition assessment is done every five years or so, to figure out how all the assets in a water system are holding up.

“We’ve been lucky to get them every 10 or 20,” said Weimar.

What’s more, there hasn’t been a capital improvement plan, setting out which assets need the most attention, and how soon; as well as how much money it will require.

The mayor’s concern is warranted, said Weimar.

“The public should go away with the idea that, yes, we need to make investment[s] and it's not a short-term, immediate fix. It's going to be a long-term investment in the system,” he said.

Historically, the authority has failed to make that kind of investment, said Weimar.

“We should be spending over $100 million a year in replacement or upgrade or reconditioning. And we're not.”

And haven’t. In fact, Weimar said plans for Pittsburgh’s water system long ago called for backup pipes to protect against the kind of compounding failures happening today.

“They were planned but never built,” he said. “So it's not that we didn't have the thought that it was needed but we didn't have the commitment to financing, to raising the rates necessary to meet the investments.”

Over the last few decades, water systems across the state, and the country, have seen declining investment. For a long time, governments and authorities spent less money on water systems because they just worked, said Shannon Gority, CEO of Capital Region Water in Harrisburg.

“I like to say that our industry did such a good job that we’ve put ourselves in this position. Because we were out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “Many political figures based their budgets on not wanting to raise rates, being proud of not having not raised water and sewer rates in a decade or more.” 

When budgets really get tight, Gority said preventive maintenance is the first thing to go out the door. That, coupled with aging infrastructure, creates a disconnect, said Gority: people want and expect clean water, but they’re not willing to pay for it.

“I understand not everybody thinks about water every day. That’s our job at the water utilities. But we need our constituents to know just enough to...put the right value on these systems, so that we can get done what we need to get done,” she said. 

Some cities are farther along than others. The Philadelphia Water Department annually replaces more than 28 miles of water mains. The city’s water commissioner, Debra McCarty, hopes to see that number go up to 40 miles a year.

“We have a longstanding history of reinvesting in our infrastructure,” said McCarty. 

Philly is one of the largest water systems in the state, with the budgets to match. In fiscal year 2018, the department will invest more than $350 million in the water and sewer systems, as well as $750 million dollars on operations, which includes maintenance costs.

For cities that don’t have that track record of reinvestment, McCarty’s advice is to monitor and maintain, plan carefully, and spend judiciously.

“Any money you spend, particularly if it’s not yours, it’s the ratepayers’. You spend it just in time. Just before it breaks,” she said.

Preventive maintenance is the ideal, but it’s not always possible. In Pittsburgh, they’ve had to take a “fix as fail” approach, said Weimar. Not because they want to: it’s inconvenient, and expensive. But like many cities, Pittsburgh faces decades of backlog.

A process is underway to restructure the city’s water and sewer authority so it can better manage its debt and make necessary investments.